Complications Ensue: The Crafty TV and Screenwriting Blog
Complications Ensue:
The Crafty TV and Screenwriting Blog



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Sunday, November 30, 2008

Hunter and I have been working our way through BATTLESTAR GALACTICA lately. We're up to Season Three, Disc Two.

(SPOILERS, PROBABLY)

I've noticed a bunch of odd things about this very watchable series. There are often big gaping logic holes in the science fiction. E.g., the human Cylons can't communicate with each other, or their ships, at long distance, except for when they die, and every bit of information they have is magically uploaded to a body on a resurrection ship, which may be interstellar distances away.

Another thing I've noticed -- and this is a beef I have with a lot of science fiction -- is that the futuristic technology is actually fairly backwards with a few magic exceptions. There are shiny semi-intelligent robots (cyborgs really), and faster-than-light travel. But when the good guys kill a few Centurions, the other Centurions don't seem to know about it -- they don't seem to have a way to communicate at long distances, such as might be achieved by radio waves. The DRADIS system can't detect ships in atmosphere, which makes it substantially less effective than radar, say.

And there's the issue that pops up in so many shows about the military. Practically everyone ignores orders. Starbuck steals a raider. Lee Adama jumps the Pegasus into battle, possibly jeopardizing the last few survivors of the human race. Chief Tyrol and Helo kill an officer. Helo saves the entire Cylon race from elimination -- possibly the grossest act of treason committed during the entire run of the show. There barely seem to be any long-term consequences for any of this.

And then there are the plotholes within the show's own rules. We're told that Galactica is the only non-networked Battlestar in the fleet. Yet mysteriously another Battlestar, Pegasus, shows up. It was presumably networked, but somehow survived contact with the Cylons.

And there are any number of mysteries left behind. How does Athena share memories with Boomer? Where did the mysterious Number Six appear from, and go to, when Baltar wasn't talking to the Number Six in his head?

But TV isn't about plot logic and science fiction TV is not really about carefully worked out science fiction. It's about a family in trouble. in this case "family" is pretty broad, but it's still a bunch of people who care about each other who are in dire straits. We'll put up with a lot of plotholes if the rest of it is entertaining. My own rule is that you can get away with all sorts of plotholes so long as either (a) they come up in the first few minutes of a story, so they're essentially part of the premise; or (b), they make things harder, not easier, for the heroes. We're used to there being no justice, so an unfair bit of trouble feels infinitely more natural than an unfair bit of help.

And the show does a lot of surprising things right. There's a whole undercurrent of current events. There are suicide bombers, torture, insurgents, and people being tried without jury. Many BSG shows are, at least in part, "about" the US occupation of Iraq, with the humans playing Iraqis and the cylons playing the US Army. And the show has a neat habit of fooling with your sympathies. Baltar randomly picks a human to accuse of being a Cylon. Adama leaves the guy on a space station. Oh no! But guess what? He really is a cylon. Roslin tries to steal an election. That's terrible! But it turns out -- it would have been a lot better if she had. Who's right?

I have noticed a couple of shows where I wasn't too happy with the story telling for crafty reasons.

In one episode, Lt. Gaeta is nearly executed for being a collaborator with the Cylons during the occupation of New Caprica. Of course, Lt. Gaeta, we all know, was the top resistance spy in the collaborationist government. Only he doesn't tell anyone, because he's afraid of double agents.

Unfortunately, the entire episode hinges on nobody knowing that Gaeta was the spy. But what would Lt. Gaeta have done the moment he got back on Battlestar Galactica after the successful rescue of the human race? That's right. He would tell absolutely everyone that he was the guy feeding the resistance all the information. Why wouldn't he? Wouldn't he want the big medal on his chest? The hero worship? The adulation? The babes? Instead throughout the episode he suffers quietly while all sorts of people give him grief for being a collaborator. He goes out of his way not to defend himself when the executioners are about to chuck him out the airlock. Why? Because that would make it too easy.

There is a whole sub-genre of comedy plots about The Stupid Misunderstanding. I was never a THREE'S COMPANY fan but I understand the show made a habit of it. That should tell you that if you're making a serious episode about a Stupid Misunderstanding, you better really earn the stupid misunderstanding. The victim of the misunderstanding can't just forget, or randomly fail, to clear up the misunderstanding, especially once he knows the misunderstanding is out there.

There's a faint hint in the episode that Gaeta feels guilty he didn't do more, and that's why he hasn't told anyone. But to make that score, you really need to make that part of the story, not just a throwaway line. You'd have to see him remember the crimes he was forced to participate in. And then you'd have to convince us that he doesn't consider saving the entire human race enough.

Hard on that episode is another episode where the humans have a chance to wipe out the entire Cylon race with a virus. All they have to do is execute some virus-infected Cylons within range of a resurrection ship. The problem here is that this is what Joss Whedon calls Schmuck Bait. Obviously the humans are not going to wipe out the entire Cylon race. That would end the show. So we know they'll fail. That means the show isn't about whether they'll succeed,, but how they fail. Which means that how they fail has to be surprising, inevitable, completely convincing, and must contain a great emotional truth, ideally about what human beings are like.

But, in the event, the plan falls apart for stupid reasons. We get some unconvincing argument from Helo about how this would be "genocide," as if any sane person would feel bad about killing the Cylon race after they murdered almost the entire human race, and while they are currently at war with the human race. (Were there currently a Cylon peace offer on the table, there might be an argument, but there isn't.) Then, nobody watches Helo, though he is the only crew member who has (a) opposed the plan and (b) married a Cylon. Then, nobody watches the Cylons who are to be executed. They are only the most powerful weapon the human race has at its disposal. In fact, the execution team isn't even sent to their cell until the Galactica has jumped into range of the resurrection ship. By then, Helo has killed all the infected Cylons by reversing a few cables that are conveniently available in a hallway.

And then Adama decides not to prosecute Helo.

If you are going to hang the entire episode on a plan to destroy the Cylons, and you're not going to destroy the Cylons because you can't, you damn well better give us ironclad reasons why the plan doesn't go off. You may have to work overtime to get it right. But if you don't, all you're left with is a bunch of lame sentimentality in an otherwise admirably hard nosed show.

If this were a Joss show, then he would perform his usual jiu jitsu. Helo tries to execute the Cylon prisoners. But Athena stops him. But something else goes wrong with the plan. The infected Cylons, guessing the plan, have bravely, horribly killed themselves.

Or the plan goes ahead, but it is all a plot by the Cylons to check to see whether the humans would, given a chance, wipe them. They're considering a peace treaty, you see, but after the humans take the bait, they decide there can be no peace.

Is there a single moral to these two failures of craft?

Maybe it's that you have to earn your ending. In both cases, the ending is a foregone conclusion. Both episodes contain a form of schmuck bait. No way are the Cylons going to all die off. And while Lt. Gaeta could die, he's not going to die because he neglected to mention to anyone that he was a huge resistance hero.

As written, the episodes are all about what will happen at the end. But we know what is going to happen at the end. Maybe that's what caused the writers to take short cuts to get there

The episodes need to be about how we get to the end.

It's a good rule to apply to any episode, really. You may know your ending, but you still have to earn it. You can't take emotional or moral or logical short cuts to get there. Story telling is about the journey, not the arrival.

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How do you know when something is leading nowhere?

It's one thing to blindly follow orders, but it's another to taken advantage of.

Working for free sucks. Working for free with no signs of your situation changing is worse. Especially since Visa doesn't care that things might get better one day.
I think the first question is: what are your choices? Everything is relative. A crappy job for money is usually better than a crappy job for free. A crappy job for free is usually better than no job at all. Only you can decide whether picking up the elephant dung at the circus is better than leaving show business.

You can only know that something is leading nowhere when you are putting everything you have into it. There's a proverb in bike racing: "leave everything on the road." If you're holding back, then you don't know if the job is leading nowhere or if you're just not following.

You know a job is leading somewhere when you start getting more responsibility, making new contacts, and learning how to do new things. If you're still doing the same tasks six months later (for an internship) or a year later (for a paid job), and you haven't seriously expanded the circle of people who recognize your name, then it's time to start asking your boss if there isn't more you could be doing, and how you could be doing it better.

Then, if you don't like the answers you're getting, you might consider looking elsewhere. Sometimes the process of looking elsewhere leads to new responsibilities, as people realize they're going to lose you. It will also often clarify for you whether you're forwarding yourself in your current job.

I'm not advocating threatening to quit. You have the conversation that makes clear that you would like know how you could be moving up the food chain. Then if you quit, you've warned them; and if you don't quit, you haven't burned any bridges.

But almost everybody understands that people can't work for free forever. (If they don't, they're not worth working for.) If you're in an internship, it's entirely legit to say, "I'd love to keep working here, but I'm running out of money. Whaddya say?"

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Saturday, November 29, 2008

Q. I'm disillusioned with the writing for the current season of HEROES. Generic dialog, bad plot logic, etc. Now I don't know what approach to take with my spec. Should I write the show I *wish* it was, or do I try to copy what the writers have done? I'm worried that if I imitate the current episodes too closely my spec will come off as badly written, but if I veer too far, I'll end up with a fantasy spec!
I would write for the best version of the show. Try to identify each character's voice and write him or her as distinctly as possible. You don't get any points for bad plot logic, so use the best plot logic you can. After all, only a slice of the people reading your spec are current HEROES fans.

Bear in mind, HEROES is a comic book series, so make sure your episode is packed with cliffhangers and high-stakes plot turns. The situations need to be big and the stakes outrageously big.

Never write down. The people writing HEROES are writing the show as best they can; that's true of almost every show. (Rarely, having a tyrant at the helm makes people stop caring.) They may have network notes you don't know about, that have to do with demographics or other unanswerable non-creative demands. They don't mean to be writing generic dialog. You shouldn't either.

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Friday, November 28, 2008

Q. In a screenplay for a musical, how are the songs formatted? Should I send a CD of the soundtrack (with just the musician singing) along with the script?
You probably need to send the artwork for the poster of the stage musical, along with the original cast soundtrack, and maybe box office numbers from the Broadway theater it's playing in. Tickets to the show would be good.

Original movie musicals are rare. Most movie musicals are stage-to-screen adaptations of hit shows: CHICAGO, A CHORUS LINE, CABARET and others that do not begin with C. Woody Allen's musical flopped. I'LL DO ANYTHING flopped so badly in previews -- in previews -- that James Brooks had to delete the songs.

There are all sorts of things that are almost musicals. SOUTH PARK: THE MOVIE had original songs. PRISCILLA: QUEEN OF THE DESERT had original costumes.

TV seems to be different. Shows about people singing seem to do well -- on kids' channels. HIGH SCHOOL MUSICAL is a successful TV movie franchise. And then there's Hannah Montana, which I understand involves music, in a sense. And there's DR. HORRIBLE'S SING ALONG BLOG, which is a straight ahead musical serial on the Web. (Is it still on?)

But straight-ahead original live action feature movie musicals? Very hard to set up, and extremely hard to set up if you're not wired in.

On the other hand, it is very possible to get a musical produced on stage. Ask DMc, who's had several musicals produced and has made many tens of dollars from them. But if it's a hit, you will have a better shot at getting the movie made. You'll have refined your story, your songs, your characters, etc. And you'll have that poster and soundtrack CD.

(To answer your question, I would format the song lyrics like dialog, in all caps, maybe with slightly wider margins.)

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Thursday, November 27, 2008

Show business is not full of contented people. Aspiring writers long to be pro writers. Emerging writers yearn to be staff writers, or produced feature writers. Veteran writers wish their show would go. Showrunners wish their show had a better time slot, and that their network executives would just love every script the way it is. When someone kicks over your castle, it's easy to forget to be thankful that they pay you to play in the sandbox in the first place.

Today's a good day to remember all the reasons we're lucky.

I am incredibly thankful that I get paid to write for a living. I have trouble believing sometimes that I am being paid to develop my own metaphysical drama for pay cable. If it actually goes, I, gosh, don't even know what I'll do.

(I'm grateful for my family's love, and all sorts of good things that happened to us this year, but this is not that kind of blog.)

Weirdly, show business turned out to be a safe industry. When I was in school, banking, real estate, and insurance seemed like the safe industries. Wow, I'm glad I went into showbiz! And no one is outsourcing screenwriters to Bangalore. And in a recession, people watch more TV. And there are more and more outlets needing shows. That may mean smaller budgets, but it means more writing.

I hope you all have a terrific Thanksgiving. Don't forget to be thankful for all your blessings!

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Q. Should a script grow out of a theme, or should the theme grow out of a script? I got my degree in creative writing (prose), and my professors always said that working from a theme risks limiting a story, and making it pedantic. On the other hand, books I've read about writing plays assume that the first part of creating a play is deciding on a theme. What's your approach?
Whatever works for you. I tend to start with a story -- that is, a character with a problem. The character and the problem usually suggests a theme. I don't stress too much about themes because no one goes out to watch the movie with the great theme. They go to the movie with the great story.

But whatever works for you, you know? If you want to start with a theme, and figure out what story would address that theme, you may have a little extra work to get to an interesting character and an interesting problem, but you'll be on a solid foundation.

Some people seem to start with a character, and figure out what an interesting problem would be. I tend to start with an interesting problem and figure out who the character that best resonates with that problem is.

Laurence Olivier started with his character's nose. Once he got the nose right, he felt, the rest was easy. And John Boorman told me that Nicol Williamson couldn't figure out how to play Merlin until he got that funny little silver head plate. The rest of the character flowed naturally from that bit of costume.

So, really, start anywhere that gets you where you want to go.

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Wednesday, November 26, 2008

[Computer tech]

Yesterday, I upgraded from Mac OS 10.4 (Tiger) to 10.5 (Leopard). 10.5 has a fabulous automated backup system called Time Machine, and I bought Apple's nifty Time Capsule. It's a combination wireless router and 500 GB hard drive. So any of the computers at home will now automatically back themselves up on an hourly basis over the wireless network.

I was spurred into action by Lisa's hard drive crashing irrecoverably. Lisa is not as good as I am about backing up. Fortunately Gmail never throws anything out, ever, and everything she writes, she emails to me sooner or later. And we had a backup from August. Me, I've been backing up to a flash drive at irregular intervals, and I'm always sending stuff out for notes. Still, the idea of never losing more than an hour's work was pretty attractive.

I forgot the cardinal rule of systems, though: never upgrade. Just buy a new computer with the new system installed. Lisa's MacBook came with 10.5. The first thing the 10.5 upgrade did was lose my home directory. That's right. Every single bit of personal information on my computer, everything except applications, gone.

Which sort of defeats the purpose of getting 10.5.

Well, the home directory wasn't erased, just misplaced, and with help from my brilliant researcher, Webs, I was able to put the home directory where it belonged, and the people at Final Draft made no fuss about giving me another activation. Still, I did spend a good 3 hours recovering.

Probably should not have installed anything until I turned in my final drafts of my pay cable series, eh?

Time Machine looks really cool, though. It saves your computer's entire state hourly for 24 hours, then daily for a week, then weekly until it runs out of space and has to start deleting old backups. I doubt I'll need all its functionality. I tend to make a new script file every day, so I have dozens of old drafts of scripts available in case I want to find out how I did it before. I'll be happy just knowing that I'm safe if my computer dies or runs off with another writer.

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Tuesday, November 25, 2008

In this post, OutOfContext writes:
Sometimes you've got to explain the 'world of the show', but often not as much as you think you do.
You don't need to put all your backstory in the pilot. Remember the Big Rule of Pilots:
The real purpose of the pilot is to get you to watch the second episode.
The Big Rule of Pilot Scripts:
The real purpose of a pilot script is to get them to commission a second script.
So only put as much backstory as is necessary to get them to commission a second script. It's TV, not features. You can develop the world of the show as you develop the characters, episode by episode. You don't have to do it all in the first script.

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Q. I had an interview scheduled for a job as an "assistant to the director". I confirmed that I could make the interview but I asked if it was a paid position. The guy replied saying that it was a paid position but because I asked he no longer wants an interview with me and canceled our appointment. He said he was looking for a passionate filmmaker who wants the job whether it was paid or not.

Was I in the wrong? Should I have waited until the interview to pop that question? I tried e-mailing him back to explain my case but he blocked my e-mail. So, should I just drop it and call it a day?
Asking about pay is always a perfectly reasonable question, even if the answer is "You'll be paid in slices. How do you feel about extra cheese?"

It is shocking to me how often people who have very nice houses in the hills get all snippy when people sharing apartments in the flats want to get paid.

Anyone who responds to a question about pay by freaking out is not someone you'd want to work with. I suspect they weren't planning to offer any money, and now they just want you to feel bad. Or they were planning to say there's pay and then fail to actually pay. In other words, they're sleazy jerks.

Any legit person in show biz understands that people need to get paid. They may not want to pay you what you're asking. But someone who objects to you even raising the issue not worth your time, period.

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Monday, November 24, 2008



Q. Is there a reputable service you could recommend for sending queries (e.g., equerydirect, etc.)
Gosh, you kids just want everything done for you, don't you?

I can't recommend a service; though readers are welcome to chime in with their experiences. I was assuming that people would glean email addresses from the Hollywood Representation Directory (or the WGA website) or the Hollywood Creative Directory. (In Canada, the WGC website for agents, and the Telefilm site for producers.) Then they would send off individual, personalized queries to individual agents or producers.

That might be a small bit of work. I realize that a bot could do it faster. But back in my day, we had no bots. We had to master Mail Merge in Word Perfect 3.0. And let us not even speak of the prior generation, who had to use typewriters to write letters one by one. (For those of you unfamiliar with the technology, I am including a small picture of a typewriter. I have actually used them.)

Okay, I am being a little snippy here. I am a little ways into a bottle of Big House Red, having turned in everything I need to turn in on my pay cable series. (I'm hoping that the resveratrol will keep me young. Or something.) But seriously ... I can't imagine anyone responding to a query if it's not personalized. That tends to rule out a service right there, I think. Doesn't it?

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DMc is on my feed list, and he should be on yours. If for some reason you're not reading him regularly, check out this awesome guest post by his story coordinator.

Denis makes an interesting point about the Twitter Generation being disinclined to get coffee. I have noticed a number of young 'uns in this business have lousy attitude and don't even know it. Some people don't take notes. Some people don't pick up their cigarette butts even after it's been pointed out that tossing them in someone's driveway isn't cool. You call to recommend them and they don't call the person you recommended them to. They don't go to parties or poker games you invite them to. They figure it will all come to them in due time when they're ready.

When I was in my 20's in the biz, I took a lot of crap. My first boss was a screamer, and I had to take his Jag in to be washed now and then. It was a great job because I learned a ton about development, packaging and production. I asked people advice, and took it, and went to every party, and even sent thank-you notes. (If you don't know what a thank-you note is, ask your grandmother.)

Show business is odd because it is creative, but it is hierarchical. (I have yet to see a good "open-source" screenplay.) So if you are a private, you should not feel like it is an imposition to do what the Sarge says. Or to salute the LT. I find the people who get ahead are those who instinctively understand that a peacetime mentality can get you killed in show business. Yes, those people are shooting at you. So do like the Sarge says and keep your fool head down, and start running when he says "run."

In other words, get your war on.

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Sunday, November 23, 2008

Q. I have solid pilot. It has good dialogue, fleshed out characters, fun action, solid structure, etc etc... basically people like it. Quite a bit actually. Unfortunately, it's now hitting 75 pages. You've talked about how page count varies wildly based on writer's voice and style. I think that's a large part of this, but it's still one of the longest pilot I have ever seen.

Maybe there's a scene or two that can be cut without major loss, but that's only going to give back, max, three pages. Cutting into most scenes, I fear, will compromise how the script presents to the reader and how the dialogue flows, which is working really well right now.

Do you have any advice? Perhaps I can leave it as is? (Fingers crossed) Or is there a particular strategy that you use when a script runs over and serious cutting needs to take place.
75 is way, way, way long, unless you are Amy Sherman-Palladino. In other words if your characters all talk like they're in HIS GIRL FRIDAY you're okay, but they probably don't. Even Aaron Sorkin's scripts are in the 60's, and they do go on.

An hour drama script should be about 52 pages.

Here are a few ideas how to fix it:

a. Start later. Could some of the story be backstory? Are you spending time setting things up that we could probably figure out without the setup? Could your Act One out be your Teaser out?
b. End earlier. You're writing a series. You want to end on a great cliffhanger so people will stick around for ep. 2. What if you end the episode sooner?
c. Cut a subplot. Odds are you have multiple subplots. Kill one. Save it for a later episode.
d. Jump the plot forward faster. Assume the audience is intelligent and sophisticated. Say you have a cop finding the murder weapon. Then they examine it. Then they argue about what it means. Cut the examination. We'll learn everything we need to know about the weapon from the argument.
e. Are your scenes too long? My scenes run one to one and a half pages. I might have a few two page scenes. A three page scene is a looong scene on TV. Can you get into your scenes later and get out of them sooner?
f. Kill your darlings. There are a couple of scenes that are in there because you just love them so. You know you don't strictly need them for the episode, but they're the reason you wrote the show. Cut them.

The key question is: these people who are liking it, are they professionals? There is such a thing as a salable 75 page script. But it's a fast-moving, talky episode. If professional screenwriters are liking it, you might be able to get away with it. But if your friends who are liking it aren't pros, then you may have trouble with your pilot.

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Saturday, November 22, 2008

Q. Do you think when writing spec [feature] scripts, we should keep 'bad language' to a minimum? That way it's open to more people! Also, TV seems to be going into the dark realsm of language, what with the likes of True Blood and Dexter. More swearing etc. Personally, I think you have to use the language that fits the story. can you ever have a story about really really nasty people without the bad language? Would be unrealistic right?
I think the issue is gratuitous bad language. Where the f-bomb replaces character, you're failing.

You also need to think about who you're writing for. If you're writing for the adult audience, then you can use bad language. If you're writing for the mainstream audience, keep it down. But that applies to violence, adult situations and sex as well as the complexity and subtlety of ideas and the portrayal of characters. Think of who you're writing for. If you're doing a realistic-style gangster movie, bad language isn't going to turn anyone off. If you're doing a high-gloss gangster movie (OCEANS n), it might be a turn off.

In other words: don't try to make your script "open to more people." Try to make your script dead on for the audience you're looking for, whatever that is.

A fortiori, if you're writing a spec pilot, of course you write to the standards and practices of the type of network for which you have lovingly crafted your pilot. If that's broadcast, use broadcast standards. If it's family, use family standards.

I'm developing a pay cable series, so I can write as much coarse language as I want. Personally, I don't want very much. I like to use it for contrast. If you can have ten pages without a curse word, then a particularly transgressive character saying,
  • RICO
  • Chow hai, some people just won't fuckin' listen!
just before he shoots somebody, it has an effect it wouldn't have if every page is a stream of David Milch.

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Slate has an article about how movie vampires break the rules. Garlic - useless. Mirrors -- no problem. Crosses -- gornisht helfen.

I have to say, some movies and TV shows I like are quite cavalier with the vamp canon, to the point where we see Angel showing up at Buffy's house steaming a bit because he's run through sunlight with his coat over his head. And in BLADE, vamps can go out in motorcycle leathers and helmets.

It's fun to muck reinterpret the legend. After all, what exactly is the physics of vamps not showing up in mirrors? Makes no sense. And if every vamp bite creates a new vamp (as seems to happen in Stoker), math suggests we'd all be undead by now. So there has to be mutual blood suckage to create a new vamp.

But it's dangerous to muck with canon too much.

If vamps can go out in full sunlight with, say, sunblock on, they're not vampires any more. Why? Because losing sunlight is part of the devil's bargain of being a vamp. You gain indefinite life span, but you can't go out in the sun any more. So it's not the UV rays, dig?

Your reinterpretation should feel more true emotionally than canon. That's why it's a reinterpretation. Not "what would fit my story," but "this is the legend as we know it; but what is the reality behind it?"

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Friday, November 21, 2008

Boy, I have not been to see a movie in a dog's age. Am I missing something, or do movies just suck these days?

McKee says all the good movies are in TV. (Thank you, Krista!)

What are y'all looking for this Chrismukkah / Oscar-qualifying-Season?

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Thursday, November 20, 2008

I am having tea with Neil Gaiman. What should I ask him?
If I could answer that question, I might have bid on having tea with Neil Gaiman.

The odd thing is, although I am a huge Neil Gaiman fan, I don't think I would know what to say to him over the course of tea. I think there are many things I could say to him over the course of a long friendship. But tea? I'm stumped.

I mean, I could say, "I think you would like the series I'm writing for pay cable," but that's kind of lame until it becomes "I think you will like the series I have coming out on pay cable this January, can I send you a DVD if you don't have cable there in Minnesota?"

What do you say to one of your personal writing gods?

Ironically I think I might have less to say to Neil Gaiman than other writers because I feel like our brains operate on parallel tracks. I know where he gets his ideas. Same place I get mine. He just gets more of them and writes them better.

(I might ask Neil who the god everyone forgets is, in American Gods.)

I'm not sure I'd know what to say to Aaron Sorkin, either. Aside from, "Hey, willya please get back to writing TV. Oh, and, stay off the coke, eh?"

(I might ask Aaron Sorkin, "So what the hell is a play these days?")

It has got harder to ask questions, too, because you don't want to ask a question to which the answer can be found in a couple of minutes Googling. Waste of a question, you know. (RTFFAQ, y'know.) I mean, it is not all that hard to find out what other author Neil recommends. And I hate to ask questions I can figure out an answer to. ("How do you decide whether something is a book or a comic book or a TV show or a movie idea?")

A bunch of us went to see Rob Thomas talk about VERONICA MARS, a couple of Banffs ago. You could tell the writers because they were asking process questions, e.g. "Season Two is more serial, but then Season Three got all episodic, what's up with that, was that a network thing or did you get irritated at being stuck connecting the episodes?" But there were no real questions about the writing, not from the writers, I don't think.

Scholars would probably have lots of questions for Shakespeare. I'm not sure what I'd ask him, either. What could he tell me about how he goes about being Shakespeare? He could tell me I am sure wonderful stories about the moneylender coming to reposess his theatre and how he got out of it, and what idiots patrons are. But the writing itself is locked inside the semi-bald pate.

Thing is, there are few funner people to be around than writers, I personally think. But they are typically more ordinary than what they write. The fascinating process by which experience is smelted into story is mostly offscreen. The only way to get a sense of someone's process is really to write something with them. (Which is the best reason to hang around other writers. You get to work with them now and then.) Everything else is just wittier cameraderie.

UPDATE: Oh, right. You could always pitch him a story you're writing, and see what questions he has for you. And if he's feeling really generous he could tell you some directions you might want to take the story...

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Q. You've commented in the past that a good spec should last a few seasons, but what happens if the show uses one's premise? I had the lovely experience of watching "House" last night, only to find that the show used the same disease and unusual treatment as I'd used in a spec I wrote over the summer. The episode's B-plot was a conflict between House and Foreman about Foreman's career development; I included a similar conflict in my spec. Granted, the reason I wrote the spec was to submit it to fellowships over the summer, which I did, but now I worry that I can't use the script going forward.

I know most readers won't have an encyclopedic knowledge of the show, but the last thing I want is for my spec to land in the lap of someone who does and who then thinks I recycled an episode. Am I worrying over nothing? Or should I just suck it up and resign myself to another spec, another month of medical research so all-consuming I wander around muttering to myself about the distinctions between hypoperfusion, hypoxia, hemoptysis, and hypotension?
Hmmm, interesting question.

I'm torn. I doubt that many agents watch HOUSE consistently, or pay close attention to the medicine when they do. I would worry more if you have the same patient. I'm not a big HOUSE fan myself, but I think the attraction of the medicine is to watch HOUSE fence with the patients. The memorable moments probably aren't the medical ones. You can probably still use it.

After all, I doubt there are very many ailments HOUSE hasn't used by now. And showing your chops as a researcher -- though it sounds like you have great ones -- is less important thanshowing that you can catch the voices and reproduce the template of the show.

But you're right, it has gone down in value. I wouldn't spec another HOUSE though. No one's going to read two HOUSE specs from you. I'd spec something else next -- something character-based, not procedural.

Any agents care to comment on this?

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Tuesday, November 18, 2008

For an entirely reasonable price (though I'm sure it will go up from $850), you can have tea with Neil Gaiman. It's in a good cause, so go wild.

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Q. I'm looking for notes on my TV specs. Whom do you recommend?

To kick the question up a notch: What about hiring a TV writer to work as a paid mentor? I'm in LA and have two or three decent contacts I'm not calling until I have something I know is strong.

Or is that asking guys to train you to do their jobs?
We train people to do our jobs every day. They're called "free lancers" and "staff writers." Everybody working in the biz has been trained by people who knew more than they did. It's understood that you train the next generation. Why do you think I write this blog?

Depending on your trust fund, you probably could hire a TV writer to give you notes and feedback on an ongoing basis. Here in Canada people often come on as story consultants; the network pays for them. I'm lucky enough to have DMc himself giving me notes on my pay cable series, and I've done it for other writers. You're looking at numbers in the four figures there, though. If you don't have a portrait of James Madison burning a hole in your pocket, consider offering yourself to a TV writer you admire as an irregular intern running errands and doing research, for which you accumulate favors which you can cash in for advice and the occasional read.

As far as just notes go, I may be able to hook you up with a couple people whose notes I respect. The thing is that TV notes go substantially beyond movie notes. It's easier to say how to fix a movie. As TV is harder to write well than the movies, critiquing a framework in which to tell a hundred stories is a quantum beyond critiquing one story. So be prepared for a workout.

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Sunday, November 16, 2008

OutofContext comments:
So, if I understand correctly, a studio deal essentially mirrors an option from a producer. An independent producer will take out an option which spells out the terms (payments and guarantees) that a studio (or producer with actual money) will want to secure and attempt to sell those rights for a profit and maybe attach themselves to the project. The difference with dealing directly with a network then is cutting out the middle man.
Right. Generally even if it's a network deal it's done through the producer, at least all of my deals have been with producers. The difference is if a network is involved before I do the deal with the producer, then (a) the network will have to approve the deal and (b) I will get to ask for a much nicer deal, since it's already a project a network wants. I think the exception would be where the showrunner has his own production company; Joss Whedon's deals are between his company, Mutant Enemy, and the network.
You mention developmental scripts as opposed to production scripts. Is that essentially what development is; the generation of enough good scripts to convince the studio that the project is viable?
That's it precisely.
Also, at what threshold does a writer who is brought in to an existing project get a 'developed by' or an actual 'created by'? Is it guild determined or a negotiated credit?
The "Created by" credit usually belongs to whoever writes the pilot script. If a heavy hitter showrunner rewrites someone else's spec script, then he might share Created By credit, or get a Developed By credit. Who gets the Created By credit is something you'd definitely want specified in your deal memo when you option your spec pilot. My deals say I get the Created By credit. A less established writer's deal might guarantee "no less than shared Created by credit."

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Q. 1) What does it mean when a studio wants to buy a pilot script; what are they buying?
They are buying all rights. The script, the characters, the series concept, spinoffs, prequels, movie rights, book rights, everything.
Q. What opportunities and/or obligations does that impart to the writer?
Whatever's in the contract.

There are two flavors of this deal. One is with a potential showrunner. One is with a writer who is not considered a viable showrunner. Either deal spells out how much money the writer gets for the option; how much he gets if the series is produced; what kind of royalty he gets per episode; whether he has a right to be similarly compensated, or even to work on, spinoff series, movie spinoffs, etc.

Either deal specifies what the writer's involvement on the show will be. In the case of the showrunner, that he'll run the show, at least until fired; also how much he'll get paid, how many scripts he's guaranteed etc. A less experienced writer should also be guaranteed a certain number of scripts and a staff job on salary.
Q. Can a lawyer handle a deal like this, or is it imperative that I have an agent?
Most contract lawyers, even most entertainment lawyers, are only able to make sure the contract says you get what the other side agreed you'd get. (Or, on the other side, to write language that makes sure the studio doesn't have to pay you what the studio agreed to pay you. Which is why you need a lawyer or a smart agent.) Top entertainment lawyers, and all good agents, know what deal terms to ask for and what not to ask for. However if you actually have someone optioning your pilot, it shouldn't be hard to find an agent willing to negotiate.
Q. What does 'development' entail? If the project is not bought outright and I'm to be involved in the production, what are my possible roles in the development process?
The project is never "bought outright." It's optioned. Then the studio (or prodco or network) commissions scripts. Depending on your stature in the biz, you may be able to insist on writing all the development scripts (my contracts do), or at least co-writing them. When the project gets a greenlight, then you move on to production scripts.

Note: I also blogged about this here.

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Saturday, November 15, 2008

I'm finishing to write a spec. Since it's set in an imaginary town wich could be american, and since I think it's much more suitable for the american film industry rather than the italian, I'm thinking about making translate and try to sell it in the States.

What I need to know is:
1) is there some law's restriction for people who are not american? I mean something like "I can't have a movie credit [if the movie was made] 'cause I'm foreigner"... or something like that?
Not in the US industry. The US industry is the only industry where there is no government support, therefore there are no nationality restrictions. You need a green card to work in the biz, but you don't need anything to sell a script.
(2) do you think that after I got it translated by a professional italian-american screenplays' translator (whom I can find also in my hometown) I can find in L.A. some reliable person to improve it fixing the language and the dialog? are they very expensive? usually do they demand a movie credit? And - most important - how can I find them?
Translating a screenplay usually runs a couple thousand bucks. If someone's just polishing the language, maybe a thousand bucks. If you're asking the US writer (a Canadian would do just as well, really) to adapt the script into something more American in tone and style, though, you're looking at more money -- essentially at that point you're asking for a polish or even a rewrite. Then you're looking at more money and (in the case of a rewrite) potential credit.

(The Italian proverb above means roughly, "Translator, traitor, what's the diff?")

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Friday, November 14, 2008

You're generally not supposed to use multiple punctuation. One exclamation point at a time, guys!!!

But multiple punctuation carries meaning, and meaning is good. Here, Tommy's really asking:

  • Tommy
  • I don't do that any more, do I?


Here, it's a rhetorical question:

  • Tommy
  • I don't do that any more, do I???


I'm tempted to use multiple punctuation, sparingly, of course. What do you think?

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Tuesday, November 11, 2008

FYI, friend of the blog Joel Haber, a professional studio script reader (and blogger!), is running a 10% sale on his script analyses...

A great script analyst can take your script up quite a bit -- and if you take all the feedback very much to heart, can take your screenwriting chops up a couple of notches too. Just make sure you make clear to your analyst that you don't want to hear how wonderful and promising you are as a writer, you want the real notes. One of the key skills any good writer develops is the ability to really hear criticism. Good writers get depressed over negative coverage too, but they listen, absorb, and after moping a bit, get cracking on the rewrite.

Don't hire an analyst with the hope that they're going to sell your script for you. That's not their job. Their job is to tell you what needs fixing. But it is probably true that if your script is really commercial, any serious script reader -- one hooked into showbiz -- will know a few places to send it.

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Q. I have a script for a short film with no on-screen dialogue where we see the main character running errands in all the scenes, and hear a voiceover which we assume to be his voice, only to find out in the final scene when we actually see/hear his adversary speak that the voiceover belonged to him the whole time, and not to the main character.

The issue is with naming in the script. I need the reader to believe the same thing the viewer will believe, that the voice of the voiceover is the voice of the main character. There's no other dialogue in the script, and no indication of any of the characters' names.

If I name the narrator in the script, then I have to name the main character the same thing:
  • ROBERT holds his wife's hands.

  • ROBERT (V.O.)
  • I never believed in...

Then, in the "reveal," I could explain to the reader that the voice of the voiceover belongs to Robert's adversary, not to Robert.
  • The MAN AT THE DOOR speaks. We've been hearing his thoughts all along, not Robert's.

  • MAN AT THE DOOR
  • But now I have no choice but to...

But that seems clunky. So I'm wondering how to approach this.
Wow, yeah, that is a conundrum. Because if you label the voiceover "MAN'S VOICE" then the alert reader will immediately twig what you're going to do.

First of all, note that the above example won't quite do. If you are going to reveal the trick, make sure the reader can't possibly miss it.
  • The MAN AT THE DOOR speaks. And we realize it's his voice we've been hearing all along -- not Robert's!

I don't think there's a good answer here -- you have to pick one. I would probably be honest and say "We hear a MAN'S VOICE we assume to be Robert's."

I do wonder, though, if the most interesting way to go is the surprise at the end. Would it be more interesting if we start to get clues halfway through that it's not the onscreen hero's voice? Rather than pushing that revelation at the audience, would it be more fun for the audience if they start to twig on their own? Just thinking out loud...

Hey, readers... which way would you handle this one?

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Friday, November 07, 2008

If you're in Montreal on Monday, I'm throwing another one of my irregular get-togethers for professionals in the biz. It's at Hurley's starting at 7. We usually have a fun crowd. Come on by and say hi!

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Thursday, November 06, 2008

My old Yale Comp Sci Dept buddy Jordan Mechner has an interesting article about what went into designing PRINCE OF PERSIA: THE SANDS OF TIME, the hit Ubisoft videogame.

Rule #2: Story is not king.

Interesting, huh?

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Wednesday, November 05, 2008

We were watching the BUFFY pilot for research (no, really!) and the question came up: where does the social structure of high school in TV come from? Because every show about TV has a Queen Bee character (along with her Court Attendants), and none of us has ever been to a high school with such a person. My high school was full of cliques that ignored each other. Have you been to a stereotypical high school? If not, where did this construct come from?

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Q. I'm a beginning screenwriter here in Paris, France. I'm getting my first scripts sold and have chosen to write mainly for animation - for now at least. The thing is I spent five of the richest years of my life living in Montreal. What are the odds of an immigrant screenwriter finding work in Montreal?
Quebec has a rich cultural life, a thriving, close-knit creative community, and many government programs to support the arts. For a "nation" of 6 million francophones, it is about as strong a cultural situation as you could ask for.

In many ways, I envy the francophone community, because they really have a community going. There are regular premieres of French language films at Place des Arts (think Lincoln Center), and everybody goes. Quebecers go and see their own pictures, unlike, say, Canadians. Quebec has real movie stars. Patrick Huard could walk into any franco bar in Quebec and take his choice of girls home.

The French in Quebec are incredibly warm and open people if you speak their language reasonably well. And I suspect that much as they have a chip on their shoulder about Parisians (who have a habit of insisting on speaking English to Quebec tourists), they will probably feel flattered that you chose Montreal over France. I think people are still tickled I immigrated from the US for the same reason.

The money is not much. French screenwriters get paid maybe half what English ones do, because they're writing for a smaller market. But Montreal is not an expensive place to live as world-class, cosmopolitan cities go.

So that's all good.

However, you will need to actually immigrate. A work permit will not do. All the government support requires that the screenwriter be a citizen or permanent resident. That means no one can hire you until you are a permanent resident.

On the positive side, unlike the US, Canada has an immigration policy that is warm and friendly for well-educated people in good health with professional experience. We have got a lot of empty room here! Needless to say, Quebec is super-anxious to get more francophones in. So you probably will not have much trouble getting accepted. It will just take time. I'm guessing 12-18 months to get your landing permit.

However, the moment you land, you are eligible to work, and I believe you can apply for your health card as soon as you get your Certificat de Séléction du Québec, i.e. before you land.) Once you are a permanent resident you're required to spend 6 months a year here, though I don't know how carefully they track this. So you could spend time in both Paris and Montreal and work both places, doubling your opportunities.

So if you love the place, might be worth a shot. And, bienvenu!

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Monday, November 03, 2008

[Politics]

I know some of y'all don't want to see politics on this blog. But this moves me. And it got Lisa to make 40 phone calls today; and she hates to call anybody. I think it's magic.

If you're sick of the election, if you've already voted, if you like the other guy, watch this just to see what makes it tick. (Notice how every shot of ordinary citizens is looking up at them!)

And if for some mysterious reason you weren't planning on voting, then watch it and ask yourself if you really don't want to be part of the magic.



All I can say is, this guy's got his work cut out for him. And so do we.

And gentlemen in England now-a-bed
Shall think themselves accurs'd they were not here,
And hold their manhoods cheap whiles any speaks
That fought with us upon Saint Crispin's day.

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According to a study:
Teenagers who watch a lot of television featuring flirting, necking, discussion of sex and sex scenes are much more likely than their peers to get pregnant or get a partner pregnant, according to the first study to directly link steamy programming to teen pregnancy.
It couldn't be because teens who are having sex like to watch sex on TV, could it?
Several experts questioned whether the study had established a causal relationship.

"It may be the kids who have an interest in sex watch shows with sexual content," said Laura Lindberg of the Guttmacher Institute. "I'm concerned this makes it seem like if we just shut off the TV we'd dramatically reduce the teen pregnancy rate."
Thank you. I am fairly sure there was teen pregnancy in Shakespeare's day.

("Study Shews Maids Who Watch Plays with Barbèd Witte More Likely to be Swived.")

I think if you watch kids have sex on TV, you are likely to be more aware of the likelihood of getting knocked up than if you don't. Because there is not a girl on TV who has unprotected sex who doesn't come up with an STD or a pregnancy scare or a baby. Not only because standards and practices demand it, but because why would you leave a setup like that hanging?

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Saturday, November 01, 2008

I'm a 20-something starry eyed hopeful screenwriter. I'm living in Toronto, taking some post-grad classes, and attempting to break into TV comedy screenwriting.

Quick question: What's the best way to start writing TV comedy here in Toronto, Vancouver, or Quebec? I do not yet have an agent.

I would love to be on a writing staff of a CORNER GAS, LITTLE MOSQUE, or a SOPHIE. I would kill puppies to be hired on 22 MINUTES. I'm working on a couple specs, but I'm worried that I'll never find representation, or ultimately, a job.
Wayyyy too early to be worrying. Start worrying if, after four or five years of diligently writing the best specs you can, you still don't have an agent and haven't written anything for money. And by "diligently," I mean that you take feedback to heart and work on whatever aspect of your writing is weakest.

If you need reassurance that you'll break in, you're probably in the wrong business.

I'm nervous about the "working on a couple of specs." That suggests you're browsing. You should be working fullheartedly on your current spec, with ideas for your next spec. It is often ineffective to work on two things at once. It means you can avoid solving the hard problems.

You should immediately form a writing group with 5-6 writers at your level. See my book Crafty Screenwriting for advice about writing groups.

You should meet other writers and filmmakers. In Montreal you could meet people in the Montreal Film Group. In Toronto you should find Jill Golick and go to her Writers Watching TV events. I kick myself every time I get one of those invitations and can't go because I'm not in Toronto. In any Canadian city you can join Karen Walton's Ink Canada and go to their events. Women should join Women In Film. I'm sure there are all sorts of similar organizations in LA.

Once you have specs, you should apply to the Canadian Film Centre. This is the only film program I recommend. Rather than going to UCLA, USC, NYU or AFI, if you want to start your career in LA, I would send you to Beverly Hills to get a job as an assistant or mail room guy at CAA, ICM, WMA, UTA, Endeavor, APA, Paradigm or Gersh or similar literary agencies.

Wouldn't kill you to do the same in Toronto, if you can get a job working for Vanguarde, Meridien, Jennifer Hollyer, Rena Zimmerman at Great North, Brent Sherman at Characters, Harrison Mgt., Alpern or OAZ. That would be well worth a year of your time.

Also, call comedy writers in town and ask if you can buy them lunch, coffee, or fine tequila at Reposado. Ask them for advice, not a job.

Many comedy writers start in standup (e.g. John Rogers out of Ottawa, that red-haired short guy who makes movies in New York), but it is by no means a requirement. I've never done standup. Standup will improve your pitching immeasurably, and give you a deep sense of comedy timing, but if you write other people better than you write yourself, you can skip Amateur Night. Still, probably worth trying for a year, if only to stretch your comedy muscles.

But really, it's all about the specs. Write two kickass specs. Write a 30 ROCK and a MY NAME IS EARL, or whatever else people are speccing these days. Worry about the writing, and the money will follow.

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Q. How would one go about writing a spec script for a show that's only in the works? E.g. "The Greysons" which the CW is putting together about Robin in the vein of "Smallville". Or would I be better to write a Smallville spec?
The rule of thumb is never to spec a show that hasn't got a full season under its belt. Sometimes adventurous writers will spec a first year phenomenon that is obviously going to get picked up. For example, many people specced DESPERATE HOUSEWIVES before the order came in for Season 2.

So I would not spec THE GREYSONS. The production could fall apart. The show could flop and get pulled after four episodes. Most new shows don't make it. You're better off with SMALLVILLE.

The thing to do before you write a spec is: call three agents' assistants. Ask what shows their clients are speccing. Pick one of those shows. The list of what people are speccing changes all the time. I haven't had to write a spec in some time, so I just don't know. (I have a really fun I LOVE LUCY stunt spec in mind, actually, if I should have the time.)

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